Spiritual Consumerism's Upside
Recently I read yet another lament of evangelicalism's "consumerist" approach to spiritual matters. Such critiques usually say that evangelicals encourage people to shop around to find the kind of church that meets their spiritual "needs." This needs-centered understanding of the Christian life has fostered a widespread breakdown of denominational and congregational loyalty, critics say. Faithfulness to a specific theological or ecclesiastical tradition has been replaced by "church shopping."
I must confess that I am more vulnerable than most in light of this charge. I am presently co-chairing, on behalf of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the officially sponsored dialogue between representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and four denominations in the Reformed tradition. In a sense, I am the most ecumenical member of the dialogue, having belonged at one time in my life to three of the four sponsoring Reformed denominations: I was raised in a parsonage of the Reformed Church in America, then belonged for 17 yearsduring my time on the Calvin College facultyto the Christian Reformed Church, and am now a member of a PC(USA) congregation. Furthermore, my wife and I often attend services in a local Episcopal parish. So when I hear people refer disparagingly to "church shoppers," I feel that I need to defend my own shopping.
I have never thought of myself as "separating" or "seceding" from anything. If someone wanted to characterize my moves as being guided by spiritual tastes, I would have to admit to the appropriateness of that depiction. To the degree, then, that there is anything to this charge of consumerism, I would guess that I am the sort of Christian who participates with a fairly clear conscience in a part of the Christian world where that kind of thing is regularly on display. In fact, I view the pattern that the anti-consumerists criticize as manifesting important strengths.
I once heard an economist rail against the consumerist patterns of our society, illustrating his point by speaking disdainfully of people who think "that economic freedom means having the right to choose between McDonald's and Burger King." I must confess that on occasion I take a few minutes to think about whether to buy a Quarter Pounder or a Whopper. But what irked me about the economist who put down the kind of culinary choice that some of us consider non-trivial is that he is a wine connoisseur. I recently heard him go into great detail about the relative virtues of two kinds of Cabernet Sauvignon.
The question I wanted to pose to him is not unlike the one I would ask folks who speak disparagingly about a family that switches from a local Methodist parish to a new megachurch charismatic congregation that they find more spiritually fulfilling. Why is that decision a manifestation of consumerism while, say, the moves of Lutheran theologiansI have in mind Father Richard John Neuhaus and Jaroslav Pelikanto enter into Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy are not? At the very least, we need to be careful that we are not betraying an elitist bias with the way we toss around the "consumerism" label. The consumption of sermons and worship styles by an ordinary Christian family looking for an enriching spiritual life may not be all that different from the scholars' consumption of theologies and liturgies.
But I want to push this topic a little further. Consider the case of a Fuller Seminary student with whom I recently spoke. Here is a summary of her Christian experience: "I was raised pretty much as a pagan," she reporteduntil her junior year of university, when she experienced a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ through Campus Crusade. For a while that group's regular meetings and Bible studies were her only context for Christian formation. In her senior year, however, she worshiped regularly at a local Presbyterian church, where several members of the staff were Fuller graduates, and they urged her to study at Fuller Seminary.